Unearthing solidarity from capitalism

Inset: Karl Marx (top), author Michael Lebowitz (bottom)

Between Capitalism and Community
By Michael A Lebowitz
Monthly Review Press, 2020

In Michael Lebowitz’s important, award-winning work, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, he sought to correct a significant “one-sidedness” or incompleteness in Marx’s Capital. In his new work, Between Capitalism and Community, he extends and draws out the political consequences of his earlier work.

When Marx was writing Capital, he made projections for a number of volumes on an expanded range of economic subjects. In the end, he only published volume one, with volumes two and three being compiled from his notes after his death.

One of the unwritten volumes was to be on the subject of wage-labour. The absence of this volume was what Lebowitz aimed to redress with Beyond Capital.

As it stands, the three volumes of Capital analyse the nature of capital, its logic and the circuit through which it continuously reproduces and expands itself.

Lebowitz quotes Marxist historian EP Thompson, who described Capital as “a study of the logic of capital, not of capitalism, and the social and political dimensions of the history, the wrath and the understanding of the class struggle arising from a region independent of the closed system of economic logic”.

While wage-labour and class struggle undoubtedly feature significantly, they are not the theme of Capital and feature primarily in respect of how they interact with the circuit of the reproduction of capital.

Though Marx certainly didn’t ignore the fact that wages vary and change and are the subject of struggle, he abstracted from these variations and treated wages as a fixed “known datum”.

In Beyond Capital, Lebowitz extended Marx’s analysis to produce a theory of how workers reproduce wage-labour outside their direct role as wage-labourers, which is also a theory of how workers reproduce themselves, not as mere wage-labourers for capital, but also as human beings.

The circuit of capital through which it reproduces itself is dependent upon a second circuit, the circuit of wage-labour, through which wage-labour is reproduced, interconnected with but substantially outside the circuit of capital.

In Between Capitalism and Community, Lebowitz outlines the crisis theories to be found in Capital.

As well as analysing the process of how capital reproduces itself, Marx pointed out that inherent contradictions in this process of reproduction lead to periodic breakdowns.

After describing the two main crisis tendencies drawn from Marx, Lebowitz concludes that capital, nonetheless, “has a tendency to restore the disturbed balance … to be self-correcting, self-regulating. Capitalism will not self-destruct as the result of its own economic contradictions”. Thus he suggests that, if capitalism is to be transcended, these crises may constitute certain openings but are, in and of themselves, insufficient.

Marx’s treatment of the real wage as a “given”, Lebowitz argues, leaves him all too close to the economics of his classical predecessors such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

He quotes Ricardo’s description of how wages are determined, just in the same manner that the price of a hat is determined. It is likewise familiar to hear in modern mainstream economics of wages being determined by the laws of supply and demand just like the prices of other commodities.

But this amounts to an unfortunate “symmetry in the treatment of labour-power and other commodities, a symmetry in which Marx followed Ricardo”.

Lebowitz points out that Marx did understand that his treatment of wages was an assumption being made that should later be removed, writing, for instance: “The level of the necessaries of life whose total value constitutes the value of labour-power can itself rise and fall. The analysis of these variations, however, belongs not here but in the theory of wages.”

Nonetheless, while treating wage-labour in a similar manner to the classical economists, Marx’s analysis remains within the “organic system from which we gained our understanding of capital and its logic” rather than analysing that system as part of a broader whole.

Treating labour-power like any other commodity leaves workers’ ability to organise for common interests and capital’s countervailing need to keep workers separated and atomised out of the picture.

“Without classical political economy’s stifling assumption, we would recognise that capital faces a working class that develops its capacity and organisation through its struggles, a working class that is transforming social relations among its members.”

Neoclassical economics bases itself on a concept of the wage-labourer as a homo economicus – an atomistic individual calculating pleasure and pain and seeking to maximise their own benefit.

Yet, much of the real lives of workers contradicts this concept. Even in the face of capital’s drive to atomise workers, they frequently choose social goals and human solidarity over individual interests.

“Actually existing capitalism … is not an organic system… [It] contains elements that are alien to the organic system of capitalism, not only those social preferences that point directly to an alternative organic system of community, but also the struggles and organisation of workers who act in common to challenge ‘the blind rule of the supply and demand laws’.”

Whereas capitalism as an organic system corresponds to the neoclassical ideal of atomistic actors functioning in a pure market system, actually existing capitalism contains elements of a different system, one in which “social production [is] controlled by social foresight”.

Within capitalism as a whole, the imperatives of community vie against those of capital. So, capitalism can produce within it resistance and solidarity, but it also tends to produce a “working class that looks upon the needs of capitalism as self-evident natural laws”.

Therefore, argues Lebowitz, it should not be expected that the means by which to transcend capitalism and replace it with community will emerge spontaneously.

In part, the resolution of this difficulty lies in the fact that in struggling against inequality, exploitation, climate change, sexism or racism, people transform themselves in the process. Quoting Engels on the struggle over the Ten Hours Bill, workers come “to a knowledge of their social position and interests” changing themselves in the course of the struggle.

In Lebowitz’s words, “Once engaged in struggle, workers transform circumstances and themselves. And they do so through all their struggles because they are not defined solely by their direct relation to capital but are the ensemble of all their social relations.”

The fact that we cannot rely on spontaneity, Lebowitz argues, points to the need for organisation, for a political instrument to transform a society based on capitalism to one based on community.

This analysis also helps inform the kind of political instrument needed. In particular, it points to the need for a revolutionary organisation, not to hand down received wisdom, but to encourage self-organisation through which people can learn and transform themselves in the process of transforming society.

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